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State Senate OKs alternative budget for 2010-11

ALBANY - The State Senate Monday approved an alternative budget for 2010-11 that accepts Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed cuts to school aid and health care but legalizes marijuana for medical purposes and restarts, for some, STAR property-tax rebate checks.

The $136.2-billion plan, adopted in a party-line vote, is another step toward the legislature and governor reaching agreement on next year's budget. They are facing an April 1 deadline, though it likely will be missed because lawmakers are to break next week for the Easter and Passover holidays.

Whether the Assembly's Democratic majority will also pass a budget plan remained unclear last night. In 2008, both houses adopted plans and then met in conference committees to negotiate their differences.

The Senate Democrats' plan doesn't embrace Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch's proposal to borrow $2 billion so cuts would be less severe. They also are silent on Paterson's call for a cap on increases in local property taxes and state spending, though caps have been adopted in the past only to die in the Assembly.

"Our budget resolution makes the smart cuts and tough choices New York can afford," said Sen. John Sampson of Brooklyn, the Democratic chief. "It holds spending under the rate of inflation for just the third time in 30 years."

Sampson and others noted the Democrats' plan rejects Paterson's push for $1.1 billion in taxes on cigarettes, sugary beverages and hospital profits. The Democrats also oppose selling wine in grocery stores.

To close the projected $9-billion deficit, Senate Democrats raise $700 million by refinancing bonds taken out against a 1998 tobacco settlement and counting on $1 billion in Medicaid money from Washington.

Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the minority leader, called the budget plan "a sham" that would lead to higher taxes and debt service. All 29 Republicans voted against the resolution, which passed with all 32 Democrats voting "yes."

Pointing to the spending increase, Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) asked why the STAR rebate checks ended last year were only being restored for the elderly. "This is a whimper of a statement" about property tax relief, he said. "A priority gets a roar, not a whimper."

Sampson shot back that "if this is a whimper, the statement from across the aisle is 'no.' " He accused Republicans of hypocrisy, saying they had agreed to years of bloated budgets when they controlled the chamber.

Still, the unanimous vote by Democrats was a victory for Sampson. On March 8, 16 of the 32-member Democratic conference had written a letter to Paterson opposing "any cuts to education." But Monday, all 16 voted for a plan endorsing reductions.

Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), who did not sign the letter, said reductions were necessary "because we have a very difficult economy."

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